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Poets’ Society: Plath and Sexton

11th Oct 2012

Poets' Society: Plath and Sexton

In my first year of high school I was presented with the basic ‘poetry starter pack.’ So Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18,’ Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Education For Leisure.’ All three are spectacular pieces of verse, a heady combination of sex, violence and social commentary.

Not only did they ignite my passion for poetry, they formed it. It was the first time I realised that a poem could be everything that a novel could be. It didn’t have to rhyme, it didn’t have to be simple or even nice. It could be dark and brooding and scary.

Barely a year later, I stumbled across Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror,’ a short but strangely brutal poem about the female ageing process. Being all of fourteen years old, it is perhaps surprising that I felt such a strong and instant reaction to this poem. Then again, perhaps not.

Plath’s words are like the tip of a knife on warm skin; irrepressibly intimate, yet jagged and barbed at the same time. Though the poem itself focuses on a very particular stage in Plath’s life, the metaphor of mirror as judge and jury is a universal one.

I love the honesty of this poem. Plath’s “mirror” is cold and reproving, it gives her no comfort, offers her no respite from herself. Yet she knows that she cannot blame it.

The power in her “little, four cornered God” resides precisely in its impartiality. Though it may seem to judge from its mocking position on the wall, in reality it can only ever present. It is never cruel, only truthful.

Unless I end up with an unexpected lottery win, my face is my face and I will never escape it for as long as I live. Though I am now much more comfortable with my own image, there are still days when I look in the mirror and feel utterly deflated. And that’s normal, I know that. It’s human.

According to French philosopher Jacques Lacan, there is a permanent and untraversable gulf between what we imagine ourselves to be and what we actually are. Interestingly, there are two distinct narrative voices in Plath’s poem.

One belongs to Plath herself, or rather Plath’s ‘Ideal I,’ her constructed sense of self, and the other to her ‘imago,’ the mirror image reality that negates her Ideal I. Her imago is both friend and foe, comrade and nemesis. She both and loves and loathes her own reflection.

Mirror’ manages to capture that nervous fascination that human beings have always had with their own image. Since the earliest of civilisations we have been fixated on the concept of doubles, of doppelgangers and identikits. Can you ever really know if you are unique, if you are ‘you’ and not somebody different?

To this day reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ gives me chills. There is no more perfect depiction of our relationship with reflection. The last two lines are particularly harrowing. Being concerned with age they have a disturbing finality. They provide the poem’s narrative with an obvious end, death.

I have no qualms with admitting that I am afraid of age, afraid of one day looking in the mirror and seeing what Plath saw. I am afraid of seeing death in my own reflection.

Once again, it isn’t unnatural to feel such a thing. Our oversized brains allow us to do what other species can’t, come to terms with our own mortality.

Therefore, it is also important for me to remind myself that the lost and damaged Plath was different to the rest of us. She laboured with the same mortal concerns, the same fears. Only she could not shake them off. She could not escape them. There really was no respite from the mirror for Sylvia Plath.

There are lots and lots of female poets that I really enjoy. Aside from Plath, whose Ariel collection should be read by anybody with a passion for words and the ways in which they can be strung together.

I also love the poetry of Anne Sexton, who wrote at the same time as Plath. She was even cited by Plath as a literary influence. Her poetry is incredibly dark, deeply confessional and often suffocating in its honesty.

Notable pieces include ‘Anna Who Was Mad,’ and ‘Buying The Whore.’ Poems like ‘Mother & Daughter’ and ‘Menstruation at Forty’ explore similar themes to those in ‘Mirror.’ They speak of age, of loss, of an unwillingness to march tamely towards death.

Sexton also wrote a poem entitled ‘Sylvia’s Death.’ It touches upon the circumstances of her friend’s suicide; the fact that she made sure to protect her children first, the happy correspondence they shared shortly before it happened. Sexton talks of her jealousy over Plath’s escape, calls her a “thief” for “crawling into the death I wanted so badly for so long.”

Though there is an undeniable sadness expressed throughout the poem, there is also a strange sense of unity. Sexton does not judge her friend, but instead seems to understand that Sylvia was never destined to grow old. For anybody interested in the work of Anne Sexton, her collection Transformations is my personal recommendation.

Guest feature by Samatha Hanes, English Literature graduate and journalist for BounceSIN. Samantha writes poetry and fiction, and can usually be found with her head in a book, writing articles or planning the next BounceSIN issue. She prefers to find beauty in the darker sides of life, in the unexpected and the unconventional.

Image via Josie Lynn Richards